CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. ? The seven astronauts of NASA?s shuttle Endeavour are readjustingto Earth?s gravity after their marathon construction flight to theInternational Space Station (ISS).
Shuttlecommander Dominic Gorie and his crewmates returnedto Earth late Wednesday in a night landing that capped a 16-day flight tothe space station, where the astronauts delivered a new Japanese storage roomand a Canadian-built robot repairman named Dextre.
?We?vehad one of the most remarkable missions I could have ever imagined,? said Gorie,a four-time shuttle flyer. ?Five [spacewalks], a staggering, ambitious flightthat we set out for, and it turned out just wonderfully.?
Endeavourtouched down under darkness on a runway here at NASA?s Kennedy Space Center tocomplete the longest shuttle mission ever sent to the space station. Theastronauts also performed five spacewalks,the most ever for a docked shuttle crew, while at the orbiting laboratory.
?Flyingover Orlando last night was just spectacular,? Gorie said, adding that he andpilot Gregory H. Johnson saw no trace of the cloud deck that thwarted theirfirst landing attempt earlier in the day. ?We never passed through anyclouds?we had a good clear view of the runway from the point it came throughthe commander?s window.?
Returningto Earth with Gorie and Johnson were NASA mission specialists Robert Behnken,Mike Foreman, Rick Linnehan and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi. The astronautswere scheduled to return to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston later today.
Frenchspaceflyer Leopold Eyharts, of the European Space Agency, also landed aboard Endeavourto complete a nearly 49-day trek to the space station. Eyharts launched to thestation in early February to deliver the station?s ESA Columbus lab and handedhis Expedition 16 crew assignment over to NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman - whoarrived aboard Endeavour - before returning to Earth.
?Itwas a strange feeling coming back to gravity after such a long time,? Eyhartssaid via telephone, adding that he may need a couple of days to get back tofull strength. ?I feel actually well. I think the adaptation is going as wasexpecting.?
Johnson,Behnken and Foreman made their first career spaceflight during Endeavour'sSTS-123 mission.
?Thething that jumps out at me is the launch,? Johnson said of Endeavour?sMarch 11 liftoff. ?I couldn?t imagine how it was going to be until weactually did it.?
ForBehnken and Foreman, who participated in three of the mission?s fivespacewalks, the orbital work outside took center stage.
?Igot to climb around on the space station quite a bit,? said Behnken, addingthat he clambered over the station?s new Japanese module and European-builtColumbus lab while outside. ?The views that I was able to see, looking down onthe shuttle, looking down on the Earth, was just remarkable for me.?
?I?vetried to burn some of those images into my mind, because I know it will seemlike a dream here after a few days,? Foreman added.
Endeavour?screw constructed the Canadian Space Agency?s $209-millionDextre robot during three separate spacewalks, and had to use some elbowgrease at times to loose stuck bolts and the automaton?s stubborn, 11-foot(3.4-meter) long arms.
?Itlooked like a giant Transformer to me?it was kind of like this giantarachnid with these arms and legs and booms sticking out everywhere. Heeven has the semblance of a head,? Linnehan said. ?It was the robots againstthe humans and the humans prevailed.?
Doi,a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut, said he was honored tohelp deliver the JapaneseLogistics Module, a squat cylinder with a 14-foot (4.2-meter) wide interiorthat will serve as a sort of orbital attic for his country?s Kibo laboratory.The main pressurized section for Kibo (Japanese for ?Hope?) is a massive modulethe size of a school bus and is scheduled to launch aboard NASA?s shuttleDiscovery in late May.
Tocommemorate the first Kiboaddition to the ISS, Doi took a selection of Japanese space food, which Gorieand station commander Peggy Whitson lauded as some of the tastiest treatsduring the docked mission. Doi also took souvenirchopsticks ?for his crewmates and the space station astronauts, initiallyas just token gifts.
?Ijust wanted to just give them to them, but they started using chopsticks inspace and it was a good surprise to me,? Doi said. ?They are very good becausethere?s no gravity. They don?t miss anything.?